Hazel McHaffie

Coronavirus

Disclaimer

We’re deep in a situation of lockdown still and the stark reality of our world-wide war against Covid-19 has made most of our everyday preoccupations seem trivial. But it behoves us all to find strategies for keeping our mental as well as our physical heath as robust as we can. My first go-to respite activity is reading (no surprises there, huh?); getting lost in a whole other world, so I’m going to share my thoughts on a psychological thriller bought back in the (g)olden days when life was busy, and books accumulated waiting for time to read them. Those far off days when I was immersing myself in thrillers in order to learn the mechanics of writing in this genre. Before real life took over the role of sending shivers down our spines.

It’s Renée Knight‘s debut novel, Disclaimer.

How many people bother to read the small-print information at the beginning of a novel about publication, rights, cataloguing, typesetting and copyright? Very few, I’d guess. And those few, other writers and publishers probably. But in amongst all that boring detail you’ll find a disclaimer to the effect that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

What if, though, that disclaimer had a red line drawn through it? THAT would make you sit up and take notice, wouldn’t it? And so it is when award-winning documentary maker, Catherine Ravenscroft, finds a book on her bedside table with the disclaimer crossed out. With a chill of horror coursing through her veins, as she reads, she becomes increasingly aware that she herself is not only the foundation of the story, but the key player. The words ricochet around her brain, slam into her chest, one after another. The names may have been changed, but the details are unmistakable. And this story will reveal a secret she thought no one else knew; a secret she has carried unshared for two decades.

Who has written it? Who has delivered it? Who has sent a second copy to her only son, Nicholas? Who has spelled out her death – under the wheels of a train – the price she must pay for pretending that everything was absolutely fine. Her dread increases exponentially as the stalker closes in.

We, the readers, know the sender is an elderly English teacher, Stephen Brigstocke, who himself has something rather unsavoury in his history. After the death of his wife Nancy, he stumbles across a stash of erotic photographs, and a secret manuscript written by her – clues she left for him to find. Clues relating to the tragic death of their only son, Jonathan, who drowned in Spain trying to rescue a five year old boy, and to a terrible truth Nancy had concealed from her husband during her lifetime.

Desire for revenge consumes him. He publishes Nancy’s story, The Perfect Stranger, and hand delivers his grenade.

‘… the  book was like a terrier, my Jack Russell of a novel which would sniff her from her hiding place and chase her out into the open. Its sharp, pointed teeth would expose her, strip away the counterfeit selves she’d assembled.’

But the wait for revenge is slow and protracted. Alternating chapters give us the feel for the cat and mouse game being played out by these two. Extracts from The Perfect Stranger paint a picture of what happened in that Spanish holiday resort all those years ago. But gradually, chillingly, we are made aware that nothing is what it seems; a far more terrible reality underpins the tale told by those incriminating photographs.

As expected the story twists and turns and we’re exposed to the worst aspects of the characters’ inner selves, none of whom are very likeable. But it’s cleverly designed, and I was intrigued by the author’s ability to slowly but inexorably turn the entire story on its head. Tightening the screw one more time right at the very end.

An unpredictable but intriguing diversion in these weirdly nightmarish days when the real world is spinning into an uncertain and unknowable future.

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Decisions in a time of coronavirus

Week 2 of the lockdown because of Covid-19 and I am reflecting back on an extraordinary seven days. Unprecedented. Grave. Frightening. But one of the most unexpected developments has been a positive one, closely connected to my professional interests: people have been thinking and talking about the ethics around end of life care, and specifically about Advance Directives, teasing out the kind of interventions or treatments they would wish to avoid.

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I wrote my own living will years ago, and have revisited it periodically just to be certain it reflects my sustained wishes. It does. My husband and children have known about the documents and their contents ever since I drafted them, but suddenly these matters seem much more urgent and relevant. There’s a greatly increased possibility that I might become seriously ill soon; that I or they might be called upon to decide whether it’s appropriate or not to accept aggressive or invasive treatment. That it might be futile. So, this week I sent copies of my Advance Directive to refresh their memories as to the detail. If they’re called upon to represent my views, they will know precisely what to say.

However, more importantly, this crisis has prompted other people I know to think about their own mortality and how they feel about these issues, for the first time. Sobering stuff. But so right.

At the very least we all need to have the conversation with our nearest and dearest; better still record our decisions, have them officially witnessed, make the documents known and available.

And the questions even for hardened ethicists have been widened and thrown into stark relief by developments during this pandemic:
what if our hospitals are already full, and I can’t be admitted if I succumb to the virus?
what if being admitted to hospital means I risk dying alone?
what if I live alone and I contract the illness?
what if I fall outside the criteria for treatment?
what if the medics deem me to be highly unlikely to survive?
what if it’s a choice of me versus another patient?
what happens if no-one can attend a funeral?
… and so on …
This public health catastrophe and its horrific statistics has brought us face to face with undreamed-of dilemmas confronting our society in the spring of 2020. Now.

The time has never been more urgent for a weighing up of the risks and benefits, and an analysis of our beliefs and values. For having the conversation. It’s personal. It’s real. It’s not going away.

What will you choose?

 

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Coronavirus – keeping calm in a crisis

Remember that feeling when you come out of the cinema from a film, set in the wild deserted, snowy wastes of perpetual winter, and the sun is shining and people are milling? Disorientated. Discombubulated. It takes a moment for the world to steady on its axis. As a writer of fiction, I’m well used to that sense of hovering between reality and fantasy. But now it’s not just a sense – it’s for real. And we’re ALL experiencing it – every hour, every day. The greatest public health emergency of our generation. And it’s worldwide.

As a country, this week we’ve officially moved from the ‘containment’ phase of this new and spreading Covid-19 virus, into ‘delay’; desperately trying to keep demand within the capacity of our health services. On Monday things ratcheted up hugely. We’re now avoiding all unnecessary travel and social contact. My generation are deemed extra vulnerable and a protected species! … but we ALL have to take unprecedented decisions and actions.

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Sound information is always key to good decision-making, but there’s so much out there, a lot of it hard to take in, sometimes even conflicting. Initially the official cautious approach of our Government was at odds with the advice of many scientists and the WHO who were looking for more draconian measures sooner. That felt troubling. Who were we to believe? For me, uncertainty was much more stressful than the fear of the illness itself. So I welcomed clearer instruction on Monday: I could now, with a clear conscience, cancel the week’s planned travel and social encounters, and prepare for a long period of increasing social isolation.

So, reviewing the situation thus far, with my ethical hat on, what influences or persuades me, and enables me to make an informed choice? Facts. Consistency. Authoritative voices. Transparency – being shown the workings behind the advice. Quiet expertise.

A concrete example: my personal opinion of the Prime Minister notwithstanding, I’ve been heartened to see him flanked by experts of undisputed scientific and medical pedigree, who add gravitas and authority to the messages given to guide us all in dealing with this ongoing and escalating crisis. Professor Chris Whitty is the Chief Medical Officer for England; Professor Sir Patrick Vallance the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government – both men with yards of qualifications and credentials and experience. But best of all, speaking in a measured, calm and quietly dignified manner. In simple words we can all understand. It takes someone with real expertise and confidence to convey the facts in comprehensible lay terms without obfuscation or bombast, to remain unflappable in the face of challenge.

When, early on, Professor Whitty observed that rushing into panic mode and isolating ourselves prematurely was unwise, enthusiasm would wane, fatigue and non-compliance would set in, and the psychological as well as the practical consequences could be far more detrimental, I let my breath out gently. Here was a chap who understood human nature. Understood not only the epidemiological and medical aspects of the epidemic, the immensely complicated world of microbiology and disease transmission, but the lived reality of everyday Joe/Jane Bloggs. Against the bluff and bluster and pomposity that can so easily characterise people regurgitating secondhand facts and figures, these modest understated men defuse the panic. So when they tell us that THE most important thing is hand-washing and containment of nasal spray and distancing measures, we can all personally identify with such ordinary domestic strategies; we each and every one have a vital role to play in this global war effort. When they tell us that the time has now come to introduce more stringent isolation measures to save lives and reduce the burden on our front line emergency services, we can comprehend and accept the need. When they admit it will be really difficult and it will go on for a long time, we know they understand the consequences, they are in this with us.

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But my heart goes out to them, and all other ‘leaders’ who are called upon to make major judgements on behalf of their people/teams/dependents/clients/delegates/fans. My own personal sphere of influence is microscopic by comparison with that of these men, but nevertheless I feel the weight of responsibility. Just what is the wise and sensible choice? The devil is indeed in the detail. So, huge thanks to everyone who is doing their level best to steer us through these unchartered waters. And hats off to the countless unknowns who are quietly and effectively providing acts of kindness to cheer and support those in most need. Already this unprecedented crisis has brought out the best in people.

I rather like this apposite and quietly dignified quote from the Talmud: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’

 

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